Student-Centered Learning

Report to the Provost

Prepared by the Provost's Task Force on Student-Centered Learning
California State University, Chico

On February 1, 1997, Provost Scott G. McNall convened a Task Force on Student-Centered Learning, with the goal of helping faculty and staff understand how we are to achieve Strategic Priority #1:

To create and enhance innovative, high quality, and student-centered learning environments. (The Strategic Plan for the Future, October 9, 1995)

The nineteen individuals invited to join the task force included representatives from Academic Affairs and Student Affairs. The charge established for the Task Force addresses the salient circumstances of higher education nationwide:

Colleges are being asked to provide higher quality education with fewer resources as they face the rising expectations of the general public, students, parents, and recruiters. (Barry Munitz, "New Leadership for Higher Education," Planning for Higher Education, Fall 1995)

Because of these pressures, there is an ever more urgent need to tap the growing body of research on how to enhance student learning and to identify effective teaching techniques, appropriate use of educational technology, and reliable methods of assessing learning (Cf. Terry O'Banion A Learning College for the 21st Century, American Council on Education, Oryx Press, 1997). Teachers, students, and administrators must work together to maintain and improve the quality of education at CSU, Chico.

California State University, Chico has responded to the current circumstances in higher education in ways that impact the lives of everyone in the university community. Concomitant with the call for "innovative, high quality, and student-centered learning environments," The Strategic Plan for the Future calls for investment in "faculty and staff development" and "building a state-of-the-art technological learning environment." Increased emphasis on teaching, learning, and assessment is evident in faculty evaluation procedures. These transformations in university goals and procedures require that we look more closely at what promotes effective university education and at the ways in which learning environments can be created and nurtured.

Drawing from fifty years of research in the way teachers teach and students learn, Arthur W. Chickering and Zelda F. Gamson have articulated the following principles in their Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education (The Wingspread Journal Special Insert, June 1987):

  1. Good Practice Encourages Student-Faculty ContactGood Practice Encourages Cooperation Among StudentsGood Practice Encourages Active LearningGood Practice Gives Prompt FeedbackGood Practice Emphasizes Time on TaskGood Practice Communicates High Expectations
  2. Good Practice Respects Diverse Talents and Ways of Learning

Although Chickering and Gamson "address the teacher's how, not the subject-matter what, of good practice," they also stress that "content and pedagogy interact in complex ways." How a college or university realizes good practice in determining the content of its programs and implementing pedagogy is very much a function of its faculty, administration, staff, and students. The Task Force has examined these seven principles in order to identify what needs to happen to bring that principle of pedagogy into practice.

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Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education

1. Good Practice Encourages Student-Faculty Contact

Frequent student-faculty contact in and out of classes is the most important factor in student motivation and involvement. (Chickering & Gamson, p. 1.)

Research in cognitive learning theory shows that learning does not obtain solely in isolation. "Encouraging student-faculty contact" requires that students have frequent, regular, and flexible access to faculty. It also recommends small-class experiences for students early in their college career, and regularly thereafter. Faculty and students need to take advantage of opportunities for student-faculty contact. The University needs to ensure that all students have regular small-class experiences.

Learning relies upon how well teachers and students interact personally, building upon the reciprocal recognition of students and teachers as partners in a shared venture. A teacher's recognition of student identities and a student's recognition of a teacher's leadership in learning are both needed for effective learning. A teacher owes students a well-designed program of learning and discovery, and a student owes a teacher acceptance of that program. In time, students come to learn how teaching can be done effectively in various ways, and teachers come to understand how learning variously occurs.

Instructors and students collaboratively defining and solving learning goals contribute to the intensity of student-faculty interaction. Faculty attendance at student events amplifies student accomplishments. Inauguration of students into the public fora of faculty scholarship and science launches students into those realms of accomplishment. Faculty need to draw students into the professional activities of science, research, and teaching. The University needs to support opportunities for students to showcase their accomplishments beyond the immediate contexts of classrooms and course work.

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2. Good Practice Encourages Cooperation Among Students

Working with others often increases involvement in learning. Sharing one's own ideas and responding to others' reactions sharpens thinking and deepens understanding. (Chickering & Gamson, pp. 6f.)

Collaborating with other students on projects and assignments creates opportunities for students to sound out, elaborate, share, and build upon their personal ideas. Students working together in learning activities can learn more than they would working alone. Peer tutoring enhances learning outcomes for students--both tutors and tutees. Faculty need to incorporate into their courses appropriate activities that lead students to cooperate in learning ventures. Students need to take advantage of the opportunities for peer tutoring and for becoming tutors.

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3. Good Practice Encourages Active Learning

Learning is not a spectator sport. Students do not learn much just sitting in classes listening to teachers, memorizing pre-packaged assignments, and spitting out answers. (Chickering & Gamson, pp. 7.)

The most powerful force that an instructor can enlist in the task of teaching is the student's desire to learn. "People by nature desire to know" is how Aristotle postulated the essence of our species. Knowledge about learning and about one's students is what best affords an instructor the ability to engage students' natural desire to know and learn.

Learning is not a passive experience. Student-centered learning environments include collaborative activities, goal-driven tasks, intellectual discovery, activities that heighten thinking, activities that provide practice in learning skills, tasks of a student's own invention, instructional variation, linkage of disparate activities and tasks, and appropriate, engaging use of new technology and traditional resources.

Most students' skills in studying a textbook, listening to a lecture while taking notes, and showing comprehension on an exam engage them at low levels of mental activity and thus are insufficient to realize high levels of learning potential. A well-designed, effective, student-centered learning environment that encourages active learning will typically use a rich variety of relevant and effective instructional methods that engage students intensely.

Students need to contribute as active partners in the learning process. Students need to be willing and unafraid to ask questions. Students need to seek and give formative and summative evaluation. Students need to be willing to trust a learning environment, to struggle with challenge, to take risks. Students need to be able to grow when not succeeding the first time at a new task.

Faculty need to identify and present content that is relevant and valued. Faculty need to present content in meaningful contexts that can instigate critical thinking, problem-solving, discovery, definition of tasks, and accomplishment of those tasks. Faculty need to engage students' imagination actively by posing problems that bring to bear command of the disciplines. Faculty need to use a variety of teaching strategies, techniques, and methods to enable students to acquire content through active participation in and out of the classroom. Faculty need to be willing to experiment with alternative methods, whether new or old, and to assess their effectiveness.

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4. Good Practice Gives Prompt Feedback

Knowing what you know and don't know focuses learning. Students need appropriate and frequent feedback on performance to benefit from courses. (Chickering & Gamson, p. 8.)

The educational process for a course assignment does not come to a finish with its submission. An assignment is brought to closure as students come to acknowledge and digest a teacher's evaluation, remarks, and suggestions. Students need guidance in how to assess their work, their use of time, their efforts, and their learning methods. Faculty need to hold students accountable for their efforts in learning, and to provide prompt evaluation and advice regarding student accomplishments.

Students need opportunities to reflect upon their college experience, to gain perspective upon what they have learned and accomplished, and to forge plans for continued progress in their studies and for outcomes beyond graduation. The University needs to ensure that all students receive regular, personal, caring, extensive, and intrusive academic advising.

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5. Good Practice Emphasizes Time on Task

Time plus energy equals learning. There is no substitute for time on task. Learning to use one's time well is critical for students and professionals alike. (Chickering & Gamson, p. 2.)

Learning comes with effort, which matters more in its quality than in its quantity. Students need to expend time and effort in class and between class periods towards the learning goals defined by a program of study. Students need to learn to manage their time and efforts and to acquire good work habits and study skills. Students need to learn to accomplish work on their own, and to form study groups with other students. Students need to develop professional habits: arriving for class prepared and maintaining attention to the day's learning activities.

Faculty need to design the detailed elements of a program of study carefully in order to effectively enlist and engage students' willing efforts. Requirements of time and effort need to be realistic and clearly stated. Assigned tasks need to be frequent, accomplishable, and productive. Assignments need to engender clear intellectual rewards. Assignments need to build upon content that students can find relevant, valued, and meaningful. Faculty need to be attentive to the outcomes of assigned tasks, and to make adjustments according to that assessment.

The University needs to provide appropriate study and research resources--traditional and new--to support learning and teaching goals. The University needs to provide faculty with opportunities to acquire and develop alternative teaching methods and strategies. The University needs to ensure that faculty workloads do not impinge upon opportunities for well-designed learning tasks and prompt feedback. The University needs to provide students with adequate healthcare support and education in preventative health practices, as part of what supports good study and work habits.

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6. Good Practice Communicates High Expectations

Expect more and you will get it.... Expecting students to perform well becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy when teachers and institutions hold high expectations of themselves and make extra efforts. (Chickering & Gamson, p. 2.)

Rigorous expectations of students is a necessary condition for student accomplishment of educational goals. The demand for rigor, however, entails vigorous efforts by faculty in guiding students through a program of learning so that they can accomplish those goals. Faculty need to establish learning goals and expectations sufficiently high to create rigorous challenges for students. The challenge needs to be more than students would be prepared initially to accomplish on their own, but not so high that students cannot meet the challenge with steady, hard work and consistent active participation in the activities of the program of study. Faculty need to be prepared to help students adjust to failure, to help students redouble their efforts toward realistic but gratifying accomplishments.

The University needs to provide programmatic support for students at risk, to ensure that the cycle of challenge and accomplishment does not necessarily cease for individuals whenever it might stall. The University needs to support and reward faculty who set high expectations of their students, and who lead them successfully to realize those expectations.

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7. Good Practice Respects Diverse Talents and Ways of Learning

There are many roads to learning. People bring different talents and styles of learning to college.... Students need the opportunity to show their talents and learn in ways that work for them. Then they can be pushed to learn new ways that do not come so easily. (Chickering & Gamson, pp. 2f)

Students need to explore and perfect their personal strengths in learning, and to assess and remedy their weaknesses. Students need to venture without apprehension new subject-matters that entail new ways of learning. Faculty need to recognize, address, and engage different learning styles among students in different classes, and within the same class. Faculty and students need to foster and nurture diverse talents and different ways of learning. Students and faculty need to support a climate of trust that allows risk taking in teaching and learning. Faculty need to understand that students from diverse cultural backgrounds may have expectations of the student-teacher relationship that are different from their own.

The University needs to ensure that all students receive significant challenges to attain a variety of learning styles and methods. The University needs to ensure that students' educational experience can be personal, broad, comprehensive, with a specialization, and yet integrated and coherent.

Conclusion and Additional Recommendations

The Task Force believes that the faculty, staff, and administrators are committed to strengthening the student-centered learning environment that currently exists on this campus, and that they are committed to the learning process and to the students who are engaged in that process. As a campus community we can take pride in the excellence in teaching that currently exists. It is clear, however, that we cannot rest on these accomplishments.

Imbedded in the document are numerous recommendations for faculty, students, and the University that will enhance learning environments that we as faculty, staff, and students can do something about and have a responsibility to do something about. In addition, the Task Force recommends the following:

  • Distributing the Task Force's summary flyer, "Student-Centered Learning Environments at California State University, Chico," to all faculty, staff, and administrators.
  • Providing for faculty access to information and literature on student-centered learning, variously accessible, including through the Internet.
  • Seeking external funding to further promote student-centered learning environments on the California State University, Chico campus.
  • Continuing support of the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching (CELT) and the Technology and Learning Program (TLP) to provide faculty with continued opportunities to discover new and alternative approaches to teaching.

November 19, 1997

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